Debate over expansion of heavy industry at port roils City Council meeting

The Tacoma City Council will voted on interim land-use regulations for the Tideflats at it meeting Nov. 21.
The Tacoma City Council will voted on interim land-use regulations for the Tideflats at it meeting Nov. 21. Washington State Department of Ecology

Environmental advocates and neighbors of the Port of Tacoma were dealt a blow Tuesday night when the City Council struck a provision from proposed interim land-use restrictions for the Tideflats that would have kept existing heavy industrial businesses from expanding significantly.

Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee offered an amendment to the temporary regulations that would allow existing industrial and nonindustrial businesses at the port to expand without limit and without facing a more stringent public permitting process if they do seek to expand.

“The interim regulations as proposed would have negative impacts to those businesses in the Tideflats that have capacity expansion plans underway — securing capital resources necessary for expansion and scaling up often takes several years,” Walker Lee said. “The port-Tideflats business ecosystem is interconnected and interdependent. Restrictions on some businesses will have a multiplier effect on others. Further, Joint Base Lewis-McChord could be impacted by restrictions imposed, because the base is a customer of some Tideflats businesses.”

Walker Lee said it was a compromise after the council voted to add smelters to the regulations’ list of banned new heavy industrial uses. The council also voted to extend the period of the interim regulations from six months to 12, at which point they’ll undergo a mandatory review by the council. Her co-sponsor on the amendment, Mayor Marilyn Strickland, was absent during the discussion.

In getting rid of the restriction for existing businesses, the council removed what many environmental advocates and port neighbors considered to be the teeth of the regulations.

The final draft of regulations the council received in October from the Planning Commission included a provision that would allow existing heavy industrial uses to only expand by up to 10 percent of their storage, production, or distribution capacity during the interim period, and they would need a conditional-use permit to do so.

The council voted 5-2 on Tuesday, with Strickland and Councilman Keith Blocker absent, to get rid of that provision. Councilman Robert Thoms, whose district includes neighbors of the port in Northeast Tacoma, said earlier in the day at a study session that he did not think he could support getting rid of the expansion limit, but he ended up voting for it. Efforts to reach him for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Dozens of people stayed through the more than five-hour meeting to speak in support of the expansion limit for existing businesses, and some cried out or stormed out of council chambers in anger when the council voted to do away with restrictions on existing businesses. About 55 people signed up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, with the vast majority in support of more stringent land-use rules that would restrict fossil-fuel expansion.

“Removing the expansion pause goes against the clear will of our community and would significantly undermine the interim regulations as a whole,” said Ryan Cruz with Citizens for a Healthy Bay, before the council took its vote.

The rhetoric that has sprung up in public hearings about the interim rules has largely been split into two camps: Those who are pro-business, and those who are pro-environment.

Some Tideflats businesses said before Tuesday that they felt under attack, especially because they were facing a potential 10-percent limit on growth.

A spokeswoman for one such company, U.S. Oil & Refining, said the company already faces enough regulation. Marcia Nielsen said U.S. Oil has been operating on the Tideflats since the 1950s.

“We’re so highly regulated by state and federal governments, what if new regulations come in that we need to comply with and we need to put in a new piece of equipment to comply with that regulation? How is that 10 percent going to come into play?” Nielsen asked.

She said the regulations could also put the company’s new renewable fuels project at risk, since it’s still making its way through the permitting process.

The Port of Tacoma has consistently pushed back against the interim regulations, saying they would hurt the Pierce County economy and are unnecessary because a more detailed, comprehensive guide to land use on the Tideflats — called a subarea plan — will soon be underway.

The Planning Commission determined interim regulations were needed to keep new heavy industrial and fossil-fuel projects from getting their permits in under the wire as the lengthy subarea plan process is sorted out.

Tuesday was just a vote on amendments, though, and the actual vote on the interim regulations package is expected to take place Tuesday, Nov. 21.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

Interim regulations

Here is a brief overview of the proposed interim regulations for the Tacoma Tideflats, which if passed would face a mandatory review in 12 months:

  • Expanded notification for heavy-industrial projects. That means public notice for heavy industrial-use permits would be extended to taxpayers that are 2,500 feet, or close to half a mile, from the project property. For projects located within a designated manufacturing and industrial center, like the one in the port or in South Tacoma, the 2,500 foot notification distance is measured from the boundary of that manufacturing and industrial center.
  • New non-industrial uses in the port would be paused, and existing non-industrial uses would be considered nonconforming uses, meaning their ability to expand would be severely limited. Non-industrial includes all residential uses, care facilities, high-intensity parks or event centers, airports, hospitals and schools, as well as many other uses. This includes the privately run Northwest Detention Center, which houses roughly 1,500 immigrant detainees.
  • The prohibition of new residential development, including the platting and subdivision of land, on the slopes above Marine View Drive. This rule wouldn’t be intended to stop existing developments from expanding, remodeling or adding accessory uses.
  • A ban on new coal terminals and bulk storage facilities; oil or other liquefied fossil-fuel terminals, bulk storage, manufacturing, production, processing or refining; bulk chemical storage, production or processing, including acid manufacture; smelters; and mining or quarrying. Existing uses would be considered allowed (this includes Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant, which is under construction), but expansion would be limited to up to 10 percent storage, production, or distribution capacity while the interim regulations are in place, and would be subject to a conditional use permit.